4-H program thrives, agriculture center stalls Lack of funding may doom project, supporters fear

March 18, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

As the number of Howard County farms dwindles, the county's 4-H program is bursting at the seams -- prompting renewed demand from activists and parents for a $1.2 million agricultural education center.

"We've got 4-Hers outpacing our farmers as we go into the next century, but we don't have a central place to provide support for them," Glenwood farmer Martha Clark said at a recent public meeting about plans for the agricultural center.

"If we don't get on the ball," she said, "it makes me wonder whether we will be building an agricultural center or an agricultural museum."

For more than five years, community leaders have touted the idea of building the agricultural education center to house county extension agents, soil conservationists and preservationists across from the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship.

But no firm funding sources have been developed, and it seems unlikely that any will be in the near future.

"There's 150 bond bills in the legislature this year, and the competition for matching grants is really fierce," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard Republican. "It takes an outpouring of community support before they will take on building an agricultural center seriously."

Two weeks ago, advocates for the center organized a five-person committee to seek private grants. Without a matching grant, many legislators and county officials say, the project is unlikely to get any government support.

Only about $40,000 has been given by the county -- for the design of the center.

Proponents are seeking to build the 15,000-square-foot facility on a portion of 300 acres owned by the county's parks department. It would have meeting rooms for 4-H clubs, an agriculture library and computer hookups to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An 18-hole golf course and regional park also are planned for the site.

The earliest construction could start is 1999, but some western Howard residents fear the project may never go beyond the planning stage.

"They say they want to save farmland so they invest $55 million into the preservation program, but then they can't find the

money for an agricultural center to educate people," Bob Harless, a West Friendship farmer, said at the recent public meeting. "It just doesn't seem like anybody's watching the changing face of agriculture."

In the past 10 years, the number of Howard farmers has declined by almost 20 percent as development encroaches. And that trend is expected to continue.

Meanwhile, the number of rural and suburban 4-H participants doing animal and indoor projects has more than doubled since 1975 -- primarily from youngsters living on 3- to 5-acre estates, called "farmettes."

As of February, 800 students participated in the county's 4-H clubs, and leaders expect that number to top 1,000 by year's end. This year, about 200 youngsters are raising beef, swine and sheep -- more than double the number at any time in the past 15 years.

"We've got families raising steers and lambs or growing herb gardens on small parcels of 3 to 5 acres, and that's causing more and more people to get involved in agricultural," said Martin Hamilton, county extension director. "We're not looking at raising farmers. We're developing young people who are learning logical skills of keeping records and getting an end product."

Sharon Murray of Glenelg -- who has been a 4-H leader for 20 years -- agrees.

"4-H clubs used to be thought of as pretty much a farm-kids-only club," she said. "Now it's more suburban-oriented, where kids are doing computer science projects or entomology experiments as part of 4-H.

"You almost have to hunt to find a real, honest-to-goodness farm kid," Murray said. "They're a minority these days."

Take 12-year-old Kristen Willie. She and her brother, Eric, raise two dairy cows, two lambs, a pig, a horse, eight rabbits and two dogs. Only the dogs and the rabbits are actually kept on their 1-acre lot in Glenwood. They lease space at neighboring farms and drive each day to care for the other animals.

"It's work, but I wouldn't trade it for anything," said Kristen. "I might be the only one who doesn't have real farmland in my club, but I just love animals."

Even without an agricultural education center, 4-H leaders say, they anticipate that their program will continue to expand. But having the center would enable them to offer "one-stop shopping" for adults and youngsters, said extension agent Hope Jackson.

"If we had an agricultural center, farmers could come in and ask questions to take care of problems they may be having with soil types, homeowners could get tips on gardening and parents could learn how to build a rabbit hutch while their kids worked with a 4-H group," Jackson said. "It could serve not just the traditional agriculture community, but everyone at one spot."

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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